Archive for November 11, 2022

Co Inky Dink 2: The Zeno-Porthos Paradox

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 11, 2022 by dcairns

So, on Monday I read an article in The Guardian in which actor Rory Kinnear talks about his father Roy’s tragic death on the set of RETURN OF THE MUSKETEERS and the need for more careful control of stunts and/or health and safety risks on film sets generally.

As I always tell my students, when making films we always find ourselves doing silly things nobody would normally do, under pressure of time and money. The time pressure means people don’t think enough about what could go wrong and how to reduce danger. The money pressure means people are tempted to take chances, trusting the odds.

The information Kinnear fils provides is disturbing: his father had been terrified of riding a horse at full gallop over a stony bridge. A stuntman wasn’t engaged to double him. In spite of the fact that he was a poor horseman and in the original THE THREE MUSKETEERS he collided with a tree while trying to ride past it.

I’d heard Lester on the radio in 1983, discussing that scene, before Kinnear’s death made it unfit for joking. “I overheard Roy, shortly before he was to ride his horse into a tree, joking that ‘Dick always has me in his films. I don’t know why: I’ve never done anything to him.'”

But in another interview I read later, Lester spoke of his in-the-moment horror when Kinnear hit the tree, implying that it wasn’t planned in any way.

It’s in the film. I found it hilarious and amazing and wondered how on earth they achieved it safely. It’s not so funny now.

In RETURN OF THE MUSKETEERS part of the bridge ride is also in the film, but it cuts before the accident. You can’t even tell it’s Kinnear on the horse, but presumably Lester would have covered the scene in his usual multicamera way and there’d have been telephoto closeups of the horsemen, so that’s why he felt he needed Kinnear in the saddle, not a stunt double.

With the blackest of irony, to finish the film (the accident happened halfway through the shoot) Lester was forced to double Kinnear extensively, as well as getting a mimic in to impersonate him for dubbing, grim tricks indeed. Screenwriter George McDonald Fraser reports rolling up his sleeves and getting down to work, problem-solving the issue of the suddenly-unavailable actor, a task like any other. But Lester and everyone else report it cast a pall over the filming. “I’ve blanked it.”

But oh yes, the coincidence. The same day I read The Guardian‘s article I screened VIVRE SA VIE for students. Unlike the other films I’ve shown, this was one I hadn’t actually seen. I knew it’d be good and would provide a strong sense of the nouvelle vague‘s 60s innovations. And I had the Criterion Blu-ray, collected from their closet in New York. And I could talk about meeting Anna Karina at Bologna Airport.

Near the end of Godard’s episodic film (which is great), Karina’s Nana Kleinfrankenheim is lucky enough to meet philosopher Brice Parain in a cafe, and he tells her about the dangers of starting to think late in life without having practiced. He uses the example of Porthos’ death scene from Alexandre Dumas’ Twenty Years After:

The scene is very worth watching. And my psychic ears perked up because RETURN OF THE MUSKETEERS is a film of Twenty Years After / Vingt Ans Apres, the book Parain discusses. He recounts how Porthos, retreating from a bomb he’s planted in a cellar, gets lost in thought, wondering how movement is possible, the whole process of one step following another, basically Zeno’s Paradox of Movement. The bomb goes off and the roof caves in.

There are, however, problems.

In my youthful enthusiasm for Lester’s 1973 and 1974 films, I read all of Dumas’ Musketeers series. So I almost immediately realised that Porthos doesn’t die in Twenty Years After (or in RETURN OF THE MUSKETEERS). There are a bunch of sequels that come after and he’s in all of them. Depending on how the work is divided, 20YA is followed by three or four more volumes. Everybody dies at the end of The Man in the Iron Mask, which has been adapted far more often than 20YA.

I couldn’t remember how Porthos dies, so I tried to find out online, and came across an account by one Vagn Rønnov-Jessen in The British Medical Journal which describes Porthos collapsing after a strong exertion, and which it calls the first description of vertebrobasilar insufficiency in fiction. Nothing about a bomb in a cellar or Zeno at all. And this is definitely an accurate account of the death scene in the book — The BMJ wouldn’t make a mistake about that, surely.

MAYBE the bomb-and-Zeno incident occurs somewhere, disconnected from Porthos’ death, but I can’t find any description of it — a Google search just brings up Parain’s scene in VIVRE SA VIE. Did Parain or Godard make it up, or did it come from another book and get misremembered as happening to Porthos? Too late to ask them.

Anyway, strange, that. You wait ages for a Vingt Ans Apres reference and then two come along at once, only one of them isn’t.